‘I’ve never felt this confidence before’: Badminton grassroots winner on the visionary mentoring programme which helped her triumph

  • Siobhan Heneghan, who won the BE90 Voltaire Design Grassroots Championship at Badminton Horse Trials in May, has spoken about an athlete mentoring programme run through charity The True Athlete Project, which has helped her take her performances to the next level this year.

    The 20-year-old is taking part in a True Athlete Project (TAP) programme which involves athletes across all sports, aged 15 to 24, being paired up with top-level athletes from another sport for a year of mentoring and workshops.

    Siobhan applied for the programme because she has always struggled with self-confidence.

    “I would go to a show thinking everyone else was so much better than me and wonder why I was there,” says Siobhan. “I’ve never had access to the sort of help the TAP programme offers and I thought having a programme that was tailored to your needs and being able to speak to a professional in another sport would be really beneficial.”

    Siobhan’s mentor is Sarah Evans, a British hockey player who retired after the Tokyo Olympics, and the two have spoken most weeks since the start of the year.

    “A lot of our sessions have structure, using a mindbook that TAP give the mentors, but sometimes it’s just like having a chat with a friend,” says Siobhan, who added that in the past she has struggled with focusing on herself and her horse at a competition, rather than being distracted by everyone else around her, and this has led to her not riding at her best.

    “Sarah has been amazing – she can break everything down for me and make it so simple when I’ve got it all worked up in my head. She has helped me focus on myself and what I’m doing with my horse. One day after a dressage competition my Mum commented that there were some really nice horses there and I hadn’t even noticed.”

    Siobhan says she has always had a “block in my head” about the showjumping phase of eventing and she found it hard that the commentator would announce her dressage score as she went in.

    She explains: “I was always listening for my dressage score and would get in a fluster. At Badminton, my Dad had asked the commentator not to mention my dressage score before my round, so at the end he asked if I’d like to know my mark. I was so oblivious I didn’t even realise he was speaking and I think the TAP programme has really helped me with that.”

    The programme also includes various workshops, including a six-week mindfulness course.

    “At the start I didn’t think it would help me,” says Siobhan. “But I’ve had a massive mental block about flying changes with my dressage horse and looking at videos, I can see I would change the way I rode him when doing changes.

    “Using the mindfulness has helped me so much to get my changes. If someone had said I’d be doing sequence changes three months ago, I’d have said, ‘Don’t be silly, no I won’t.’ The mindfulness has really helped because I’m not overthinking it, I’m just getting into a really calm place so I’m in a good place when I ask for the changes now.”

    Siobhan has now entered her dressage horse, Humm, for her first Premier League at Hartpury later in July.

    “I have no expectations and am going purely for experience, but TAP has given me the confidence to say I will go for the experience, rather than thinking I’m going to fail. I’ve had Humm from a five-year-old and he’s now done his first advanced. Before, I could never see how far we’d come and thought everyone else was better than me because they’d done pony and junior teams.

    “Sarah has helped me realise that it’s your journey and your goals and you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone. She’s helped me realise that you’ve won if you’ve achieved your goal at a show and now I ride him so much better at shows, whereas before I wasn’t riding as well as I could because I was so hung up on everything else.”

    Siobhan is also contesting her first international eventing competition, the one-star at Offchurch Bury, this weekend with her Badminton winner, Mermured Promise.

    “I’ve never felt this confidence before,” she says. “It’s about accepting when things go wrong. Before I always used to think I was a failure and no good if something went wrong. Now, it’s not like I feel confident for one day – it’s helped me feel consistently good and confident, which I’ve never had before so I’m super grateful to TAP for accepting my application.”

    The True Athlete Project: ‘a more compassionate culture’

    TAP is a charity which was started by Sam Parfitt, a Brit who moved to the USA to pursue a tennis career.

    Laurence Halsted, The True Athlete Project’s director of mentoring, says: “We are a sports charity that has a mission to create a more compassionate culture in sport. To do that we run various programmes at all levels, from primary schools and grassroots clubs up to national level and Olympic and Paralympic level. They all have a thread of mindfulness running through them but stretch into all sorts of other areas, such as values and communication. Our mentoring programme has become our flagship programme.”

    Having started with a single pilot pairing in 2016, the programme involves 34 pairs this year, who are spread across 33 sports and 10 countries. Siobhan is the first rider to join the programme, although there have previously been pentathletes involved and she heard about it through former British Olympic pentathlete Kate Allenby.

    The programme is focused on supporting the wellbeing of young athletes – most of whom are still in education or who are amateur athletes, such as Siobhan – rather than specifically on performance.

    “Our only real criteria is that mentees are committed to the programme, committed to their sport at whatever level and have a passion for what they are doing,” says Laurence, who is a former Olympic fencer.

    “Part of our approach is that at that age you never know who’s going to have a real impact on the culture of sport, so we don’t want to narrow it to having just the best or just this type of athlete.

    “It really is open to anyone who wants to be on it and who shows they understand a bit of what it’s about and who buys into this kind of programme, which is very holistic. People shouldn’t come to us for purely performance gains or for nutrition advice or to get a physio – some people think they are going to get a support squad for their performance and it’s not that.

    “It’s a mentor to support them as a person. We don’t shy away from the fact it can have great performance benefits as well, because when you address all those things around the person – around your values, identity, some performance psychology – it can have an amazing impact. Siobhan is a wonderful example of that.

    “All these stories come out of sport of abuse, bullying and awful coaching techniques, which is born from a brutal traditional approach to performance and thinking being harsh is the only way to develop. We see it completely differently. Sometimes there’s resistance, thinking when the focus is on the person or their wellbeing, it’s a trade-off with their performance but that’s absolutely not the case – when you support someone as a person, they are built up to do even better in their sport.”

    Laurence added that Siobhan has incredible resilience. She had a severe allergy to horses and went through a five-year immunotherapy trial programme where she had to hold progressively stronger drops under her tongue daily for two minutes, then swallow them. Her allergy is now more manageable and she no longer has to wear a mask to ride.

    “How many others would go through five years of quite brutal allergy training to continue with their sport?” says Laurence. “Yet she didn’t see herself as a resilient, tough athlete. She is a perfect example of a true athlete who is all these things, but not in a way traditional sport pushes.”

    Applications for the next cohort to join The True Athlete Project mentoring programme are now open. Mentees pay £950 for the year-long programme, but finance should not be a barrier to applications.

    “We fundraise and receive donations to offer scholarships,” says Laurence. “We ask potential mentees in their application if they need a scholarship and how much, up to 100% of the cost, and so far we’ve been able to raise enough money to give whatever scholarship they ask for. It’s always been key that the programme shouldn’t just be for people who can afford it, but for those who really want it.”

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